Here I will share my views on LOVING(2016), the Jeff Nichols directed drama that recreates the historic but subdued life of the Loving couple which paved way for interracial union in a racially charged America of the 60s and by extension other hues of forbidden relationships for the future found a voice . Surprisingly, it’s the silences on Mildred and Richard Loving’s part that spoke louder than words.
It’s a tale old as the hills – of societal stigmas – and as timely as any of yesterday’s headline. Again, compassion, compromised as it is under dire circumstances, finds its greatest significance in the approach of these two as individuals. Released in the contentious year of 2016, it marked a correlative with the urgent racial signposts the country passed through and a whole society that grapples with it diurnally must make the effort to abide by the LOVING’S humane story.
*** Right below is the iconic still of the real life couple taken by LIFE magazine photographer Grey Villet and its recreation as a pivotal moment in the cinematic retelling .
Look at the above picture : how it is almost like an ideal snapshot of mutual bonhomie, reflecting the everyday life of people who have committed themselves to years of union. But as much as pictures express a thousand words, the frayed edges of personal lives can disappear in the moment where man and wife or any two people sharing a deep bond come together. This was an unrehearsed shot, particularly beautiful for capturing the rare image of the LOVING couple which was on its way to create history unbeknownst to it so far.
The laughter disseminated while watching a comic skit on television and the natural tenderness exhibited while resting his head on his wife’s lap is childlike and endearing, for the two knew what it meant to live in a contrarian mold and be suffocated as a familial unit owing to the cruelty of man made decrees. That’s the crux of LOVING, the quietly evocative work that finds cinematic traction under Jeff Nichols and his consummate team.
The moment above appears after the first half as the couple settles into the rhythm of change; for change is an idea slowly approaching them as Mildred and Richard Loving had been, quite literally, in the eyes of the storm and settled for relative anonymity until the Life Magazine assignment vis a vis Grey Villet arrived at their doorsteps and the higher legal echelons of America recognized the sanctity of their interracial union. A sanctity questioned by law, by blabbering mouths and which uprooted them from their families, friends and hearth in segregated Virginia state ; the center did not hold them. The idea of home eluded them as soon as they decided to spend their lives together, not long after Mildred announced she was expecting their child and Richard brought a large acre of land in their native town to build a home of their own and proposed to her.
Taking the plunge legally in Washington state, all their dreams of a peaceful existence changed when policing authorities barged into their room one night , led them out and arrested them. Their crime being lawfully cohabiting as man and wife, a concept the powers that be had struck down on the basis of race eons earlier, taking it as the word of God, it seems . Incarcerated and put in separate cells, with little regard for Mildred’s condition, they are harassed and mentally subjugated until they surrender to the decrees of the law and are exiled to another state outside Virginia and outlawed so that they can never enter their provenance together or stay maritally as an unit. The punishment being harsh convictions and immediate sentencing if they dare to do otherwise . In essence, the serrated edges of fear are used as instruments of further hate mongering and prejudice to break this dignified couple’s spine.
The sheer absurdity of human logic.
The mind numbing discrimination.
A saga that, till today, has been inked by instances of similar propaganda.
Is this what humanity strives for? Is this the final yardstick for interaction with fellow mortals?
The questions we ask continue to stream forth, unabated but sometimes concrete answers lie not in immediate reciprocation or rhetorical stances but in the unraveling of a joint partnership. LOVING realizes that predicament of the couple with quiet grace when essentially they should have stomped on the far ends of the earth to be granted justice. Quietude is their refuge. They have no other resort. No shelter from historic conventions or accumulated wisdom ( that breeds toxicity in a democratic, diverse culture) . It’s significant for any and every nation then to stress upon the basic standards of a righteous life.
These opening minutes hit us in the gut. Intense love and immense pain commingle, while the silently civilized veneer of those following protocol breaks spirits as their deeply entrenched aggressions have a field day.
The scene with Sheriff Brooks ( Marton Csokas) denouncing the Loving’s neighborhood / community of mixed heritage, whittling it down to being born in the wrong place, is just the kind of rationale sought by those who have not let personal wisdom vanquish generational racism by way of herd mentality. We know the time to make amends for someone of his ilk never really comes. Csokas expertly makes him a man of duty and he believes his area of morality is sacrosanct beyond doubt.
Nichols portrays them as mere marionettes under the spell of centuries old, draconian laws ; the difference being they hardly come above those placid waters to see the LOVINGS as beloveds, man and wife, a couple or even as peace abiding citizens eking out meagre, modest livelihoods, owing to their hardscrabble working class background . The fragility of the AMERICAN DREAM is exposed, the lofty ideal emerges as a polar opposite in letter and spirit for its own inhabitants. For those who like to live in the so called elongated frisson of the past, the free nation as a construct is revealed to be fraudulent and chants of A FREE WORLD then is absolute only in an utopian vacuum. It’s a spare truth in these times as we revert to our old insensible, stupefying ways. As a real world narrative recreated here, it’s crushingly universal as walls threaten to crop up at every juncture and mending fences becomes more difficult across the vast multicultural board.
But. But. Still. A life like that of the Loving couple is far from being a brief interlude in the larger churnings affecting society. Far from the madding crowd of systemic racism, first settling for years in faraway Washington and then in a remote farmland in Virginia to evade prying eyes, the duo’s interiority reflects in the externalized sphere where others constantly do the talking, and in turn, their marital bidding in mid 20th century America. These are the voiceless voicing their truths through years of intimidation, wait, langour, hope and above everything else, unparalleled dignity. Actually, the slot of history makes them commit to these as much as a personal nature that doesn’t subscribe to conflict. That gnawing injustice and frustration makes LOVING provoke us. Then it prods us towards a more enlightened consciousness. They continued to follow a normal life script but Mildred kept her hope aflame on most trying days even as Richard kept his on a leash. But he was in perfect unison and spiritual tandem with his beloved better half during the legal process of transformation.
It’s ironic that two people with literally such a saccharine surname and worldly fortitude were made to bear the brunt of history. Jeff Nichols finds the intimacy and something elemental in the human spirit that survives despite internalized odds.
The turning points in this static continuum come as Mildred’s friend, buoyed by the Civil Rights marches led by Martin Luther King Jr., motivates her to write to then senator Bobby Kennedy, who recommends their plight to the Civil Liberties Union and a lawyer decides to take their case. It is a gradual, painstaking process where trust is earned step by step by those on the other side and the larger world wakes up to inequities that are all too in your face. Nick Kroll as the lawyer Bernie Cohen begins an ambiguous journey on a false note of diffidence, misplaced confidence, perhaps even condescension but gradually his sincere work towards building their profile comes to define the Loving’s future and that of the society. His ever smiling demeanor traces that progression of motives and action competently. He could not be more different in approach than Bill Camp’s earlier lawyer who quotes the draconian laws of Virginia and is a product of his times, rendering the Lovings asunder and with absolute hopelessness in a cyclical contraption of the land. Bernie along with Phil Hirschkop ( Jon Bass) made the deliverance sweeter for the Lovings.
The other landmark that both lawyers helped in achieving was the LIFE magazine shoot by Grey Villet. This helped promote the commonplace ideal of life for the Lovings, matter of fact yet operating on coming ripples of expectation and one fundamental right: the right to love, marry and spend life with another, race or colour no bar.
Oscar nominee Michael Shannon makes his presence felt in a guest appearance.
*** The real Grey Villet (below)
***** His iconic picture that he mentions while conversing with the Lovings.
That said, the storytelling may not be effective on a first view and boils things down to an incidental chronology. But Ruth Negga, who received numerous nominations and wins, including an Oscar nod, and Joel Edgerton embody the Lovings through their internalized communication. Their eyes do the talking, in individual, private moments and when in each other’s presence, through thick and thin.
Ruth is truly a performer of extraordinary sublimity. It’s a new benchmark in screen presence. Her abilities are very similar to those of the silent film era and her beautiful eyes hold so much of the world seen and felt. Joel is brusque in appearance but is just as sublime. The other performers like Terri Abney who plays Mildred’s sister and Alano Miller as Rich’s eternally loyal friend are very competent as are all the others.
At times like in the mid section, you suspect their bond has suffered an irreparable setback owing to circumstances and then one economical moment together, sans dialogues, renders this transcendental relationship firm. I think they were always meant to occupy some metaphysical space of their own and after combating such adversities, they aligned their spirits more strongly.
That’s the magic of this screenplay. Gradually in the course of the running time and informed by the timelessness of the issue of interracial bonhomie, especially marriage, we realize why tropes of storytelling will not do here. The uncompromising fealty to the true life tale posits the kind of integrity filmmaking achieves once in a while.
The Loving’s seemingly passive but expressive countenances are canvasses of fear and concern. Of persecutions seen and conditioned. Yet their love is their religion.
Suppressed cries of the soul.
Whispers of mortality.
THE FEAR THAT THE PERIOD OF PERSECUTION WILL STRETCH FOR A LIFETIME.
God knows it is the truth and continues to be so for many to this day on varied counts, personal and political melding in an unholy whole.
By the end, two lines of dialogues stayed with me. One when Mildred tells Grey, “we may lose the small battles but win the big war” – a picture of pragmatism, composure and silent resolve and when Richard tells Bernie before the final court verdict, “tell them I love my wife”, when asked what he would like to convey to the Supreme Court. Simple people with simple, pure resolves, given to no unrealistic expectations or sloganeering. Yet their individuality shone as they won the case and led to the abolishment of draconian laws, paving the passage for interracial unions and those of every other hue.
Finally, images of Hattie McDaniel, the legendary Mammy from Gone With The Wind, the first Oscar winner of African American origin who was denied frontseats during the ceremony and Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American Best Actress Oscar nominee, immortalized by Halle Berry in the 1999 HBO movie INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE, visit me. Women/ individuals who got raw deals. In a Loving victory, we funnel their backlog of racial experiences and the future where greater representation is offset by racial dissonance, exemplifying the simultaneity of our world.
Couples of every hue who have ever encountered stern opposition under cultural fiats will go back shaken, feeling cathartic and deeply affected by Jeff Nichols’ LOVING (2016)
The film opens with Mildred. She is the pivot of a historic life that lived in the shadows of muffled resignation. Perhaps it was so as she outlived Richard who tragically passed away, seven years after the judgement in their favour was passed. Their love prevails through her and their struggles. Their grace prevails in the here and now.
*** this article is also on my Wattpad collection A LETTERED SOUL.